HCI Masters Programs: Georgia Tech v. Indiana Purdue v. Indiana Bloomington

31 Mar 2011 - 10:04pm
4 years ago
12 replies
12935 reads

Hello everyone. I am a soon-to-be HCI graduate student who is looking for some input and comments about certain M.S. in HCI programs that I have been accepted into. Before I talk about the schools, let me say a few things about my intended career path.

I would like to be a user interface designer / usability engineer. In particular, I would like to be involved with the designing or redesgining websites or software applications from a user-centered design perspective. Thus, I would like to be involved in the ideation phases, wireframing, prototyping, requirements analysis, creating personas, performing usability studies, developing information architecture, iterative testing, iterative designing, and other related processes. I currently have no notable programming or coding skills, but I have begun teaching myself HTML. I also intend to begin learning CSS and Javascript before I start a program, because I notice that a lot of user interface design / user experience design / usability engineering jobs require a familiarity of or expertise in these languages. So there's some relevant information about me. Now for the schools...

The first program is Georgia Tech. This is currently my top-ranked school for a number of reasons. First, the program's structures and the available course seem to be very strong and relevant to the kinds of professional interests that I have. Secondly, since GeorgiaTech is such a big name, I think it would give me a competitive advantage when I am looking for jobs and have its name on my resume. Third, various of the professors there have research interests that correspond with my professional interests. Fourth, as far as I know, the university is located in a much better city (Atlanta) for networking and finding relevant (and hopefully higher paying) jobs while I am in the program and perhaps soon thereafter. Fifth, I am pretty sure that GATech receives more funding than any of the other schools I will mention in this post, which may mean that I will be able to engage in more important or more impressive work. Unfortunately, GATech does not offering funding with admission, but there is a 30-40% chance that I could acquire an assistantship while I am there, according to the program director. My biggest concern with the program is that, because I would have to pay a tuition of  roughly $21.3K per year, I may end up having to take up a $45K+ loan to complete the program.

I have also been invited to enter the programs at Indiana University Bloomington and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. The former has offered me full-tuition funding, while the latter has offered me roughly $6.3K per year on roughly $17K tuition per year.

So here are some questions that are running through my mind as the deadline for my decision approaches (in about 2 weeks):

1. Since I currently have no debt and am single with no children, should I not even worry about the debt that I would have to carry in order to attend GeorgiaTech? Are the job prospects that I am likely to obtain from exceling in that program likely to secure me jobs that will put me in a comfortable position to pay off that debt in the future?

2. How much better, if at all, is the Georgia Tech program than the Indiana universities, given my professional interests and background? In your view, does either Indiana school offer something that GATech does not and offer that thing or things better than GATech does? Obviously if you believe that either of the Indiana schools is better, than your recommendation should be obvious, since GATech isn't offering me any funding. But if you believe GATech is somewhat or substantially better, do you think it is better enough to justify rejecting the funding offers from the other schools and take up a substantial loan to go there instead?

3. Can any of you speak to the nature of the 3 mentioned programs? In your view, what are their strengths? Weaknesses? And feel free to discuss not only the programs themselves but the job prospects related with the programs, the networking opportunites related with the programs, etc. (I should note that I am not interested in such factors as weather and social environments, however).

4. I am also curious about DePaul University, the University of Baltimore, and the University of Maryland. Both of the Maryland schools have accepted me so far, but neither offered any funding. And basically, since I have GATech ranked higher and it would not be THAT much more expensive to attend GATech, I am not even seriously considering going to either of the Maryland schools. But I am curious if anyone thinks either school might be a better choice for me, given my professional interests. As for DePaul, I haven't heard back from them yet, but I very much liked the coursework and program structure. It seemed VERY comprehensive. But I have my doubts about the school because I haven't really seen many people talking about the program anywhere.

Any input at all will be greatly appreciated. Thanks in advance.


5 Apr 2011 - 2:44pm
Leon Barnard

From my perspective, I would avoid programs offered within a Computer Science department. I know that most HCI programs are, but my experience is that these programs are too focused on the technology and not enough on the user and the system. I am a professional Interaction Designer, I do most of what you said that you would like to do. I also got a Master's degree from Georgia Tech, but in Industrial and Systems Engineering instead, focusing on Human-Machine systems. I saw a lot of the projects that came out of the HCI program and found that they were mostly about doing cool new stuff with technology and, in my opinion, mostly giving only lip service to addressing real user needs. Interaction Designers need to be able to work with computer programmers to design how the product should work, but I think that it's critical that they aren't computer programmers, or, at least, don't think like them. An Interaction Designer is an advocate for the user and only sees technology as a tool for solving real, human problems. I don't think that this is the realm of computer science. A bit of a rant, I know, but that's what my experience tells me. A fundamentally different skill set is required to be a successful interaction designer. I personally would look for programs that call themselves Interaction Design programs, like the one at DePaul.

Also, on a personal note, Georgia Tech is a pretty sad place to go to school. There is little to no campus life, students mostly live off campus, and it's mostly geeky males (sorry for being harsh). Downtown and Midtown Atlanta are getting better, but the city is very big and spread-out, which makes it very hard to feel at home in. If you are someone who could feel at home among computer scientists, then maybe it is right for you, but, if that doesn't sound appealing to you, you might want to consider a different program. You are right, however, that graduating from GT will get you more attention and may even make you more marketable, so there is a definite trade-off there. But, as far as learning the skills that you need to become an Interaction Designer, I would first look elsewhere.

Feel free to contact me offline if you'd like more information about my current position or my experience at GT.


Leon Barnard

6 Apr 2011 - 1:31am

Thanks for the thoughtful reply Leon. I think you made some good points.

As far as I know, none of the three programs that I mentioned is actually housed within a strictly Computer Science department. The Indiana programs are housed within Informatics schools, while the GT program is housed within the School of Interactive Computing in the more general College of Computing. But your point is well taken. I am not pursuing a masters degree to learn how to program or how to write the code for websites. Instead, I am pursuing the degree so that I can learn how to effectively design interactions and user experiences by, as you put it, being an advocate for the user. Obivously, it will be important for me to have an understanding of the software and website development processes in order to effectively work with the other people who are necessarily involved in the creation of such artifacts, but I do understand that the competencies, mindset, and methodologies that I must master are different in nature from those of a programmer or web developer.

As for "doing cool new stuff with technology", that is a bit tricky. I do think it is important for an academic program in Human-Computer Interaction to at least address "cool new things" with technology. HCI programs should probably also foster a sense of innovation in addition to teaching how to work within current paradigms. But, at the same time, they should not focus on these "new cool things" at the expense of effectively teaching about user-centered design, user experience design, information architecture, etc.

You said "as far as learning the skills that you need to become an Interaction Designer, I would first look elsewhere [besides Georgia Tech]." I don't know if that's a fair point to make about the Georgia Tech program though, because their selection of core and elective courses seems to be very strong when it comes to learning user-centered design.

5 Apr 2011 - 3:31pm
Leon Barnard

As a follow-up, using more concrete examples, I recently visited an HCI program (not at GT, but still within the CS department at a major university). The graduate students were doing research in the following topics: brain-machine interaction, agents/bots, and something involving robots. All of these I would categorize as "new, cool technologies", having nearly nothing to do with the activities that you mentioned you were interested in above. My 2 cents.

11 Apr 2011 - 11:30am
Ed Rice

I am currently at Indiana Bloomington, and we have a beautiful campus. I was also accepted to IUPUI, Depaul and ID at IIT. I chose IU Bloomington for several reasons. 

Amazing faculty, reasonably priced (in your case, free), immersive environment, and a strong focus on design over programming. 

Do your research on the faculty see what they are publishing, you'll likely end up on a research project with one of them at some point. 

Cost matters. I really liked ID at IIT but it was going to cost a fortune. 

IUPUI and DePaul seemed to lack a "class" feeling. Really getting to know your classmates and having conversation outside of class adds great value to my education here that wasn't at IUPUI and didn't seem to be at DePaul. (mostly night classes for busy working professionals) 

Design and design reseasrch is the focus here. We are trained to solve design problems rather than to design around today's technology. 

It's difficult to articulate because it's more of a personal choice that requires a real conversation rather than a forum thread. 

I would visit the schools or have a phone call with students at the different programs. You can call me. My number's on my website edrice.com. I know anyone in this program would be willing to talk to you. You can find all of our portfolios at HCIDpeople.com 

Good Luck, I know how difficult it is. 



11 Apr 2011 - 11:39am

So, I am a Master's candidate in HCI at IUPUI.  I know a bit about Bloomington, though not a lot about their particular HCI program and how it differs from the program that we have in Indianapolis.  I lived in Bloomington for a year or so and didn't like it, and it is the quintessential college town.  That said, I think that there are a couple of other things that you might want to consider: 1) IU Bloomington is a fabulous school with very strong faculty in many different departments and would be a fabulous place to go to learn the interdisciplinary science of HCI; moreover, they have other programs in Informatics that interest even me, though I will probably commute to Bloomington if I ever want to pursue them.  2) IUPUI is working hard at growing its school of informatics.  We recently hosted some talks for prospective faculty that were very interesting.  One of the candidates was from GATech, one was at Stanford, one was from University of Toronto, and another from Cambridge.  All of the candidates had very unique interests that would suit our school well.  Human-centered design is of paramount concern in our program.  I am just finishing up my first year and have learned more than I ever thought I could about being an architect/designer for computing.  I would say that Indianapolis also has great resources when it comes to networking and professional practice.  The renowned Regenstrief Institute is a part of our campus, and there are various other companies in Indianapolis that look out for graduates of HCI from Indy and Bloomington.  I like Indianapolis, though I live in the heart of downtown, so I take advantage of the best things that the city has to offer.  I think that you'll find yourself being a part of a team for much of your degree at IUPUI, which will prepare you for professional practice, as well.  Don't get me wrong, it isn't always fun, but I couldn't imagine myself having a better time doing anything else.  

12 Apr 2011 - 12:24pm

One other thing you do need to consider is cost of living. I am an Indiana University, Bloomington HCI grad I live in Atlanta right now and I can tell you the cost of living is much higher here than in Bloomington. I lived in a place 3 blocks from campus and paid about $600 for a nice 1 bedroom unit with most utilities included. Something similar to that in Atlanta would run you at least $1k per month with no utilities.

I also considered Tech. I liked the weather better in Atlanta than Indiana. When I visited Tech I didn't get the same feeling I got from IU. Everyone I talked to at IU was really enthusiastic about the program and really wanted to convince me to come there. There is something about IU as I am sure you can see from the number of IU people who have replied to you.

From a job perspecive I haven' t had any trouble securing good well paying positions in Atlanta with my MS from IU considering the large number of Tech grads here.

27 May 2011 - 3:54pm

OK - I'm also an IU grad, albeit I did the M.I.M.E. program under Telecom (Masters in Immersive Mediated Environments). I had a lot of HCI friends too - and there was a lot of overlap between the programs. So won't talk school, I'll talk Bloomington.

While I can't speak to the HCI program itself, I can tell you this: Bloomington is an absolutely FANTASTIC place to live. We lived there 5 years even though my program only took 2 - because we loved it there. My wife keeps telling me that she wants to move back there or retire there (there are almost no tech jobs there to speak of, so it's difficult to make a living there unless you're remote). The cost of living is great - the town is great, the atmosphere is great, culture is great - it's just awesome. The rest of Indiana - not so much. Bloomington is an island. So if you plan to have a life on campus or off, Bloomington rocks. The IU campus is absolutely gorgeous and we loved just walking/riding around it. The people are good, the food is good - and from all over the world. The diversity is astounding. I've got a friend who graduated from IU, went to work making $350K / yr for a big tech company in San Jose, then after 3 years, quit, took a job at the university for $75K / yr and is ecstatically happy to be back in B-town. That's just the way Bloomington grabs you I think.


27 May 2011 - 3:53pm

I am aware that Maryland has a great HCI program. Don't count it out. The other schools in indiana, I have not heard of. Don't worry about the money. Pick the one that feels right based on your criteria. Monday is tight for everyone, but as a UNC professor told me, it is an investment.

Good luck.

21 Oct 2011 - 1:56pm

Hello everyone! I'm Jack from NY, I'm new to this community and I have a question that would help with my communication degree: what is the influence of instructional systems design? ISD and IxD seem very related. While ISD deals with creating instruction. The process of identifying the users' goals and needs and very similar. It seems to me that the instructional design process is a precursor to IxD. IxD is practically the same thing...just simpler because there's no need to focus on creating content that actually teaches and trains people. Thanks

23 Oct 2011 - 12:29pm

You might also consider the Digital Media program at Georgia Tech. You can take your elective courses from the HCI department. There are no required classes in programming through that program as there are in the HCI program. I graduated from it in 2000 so I can't comment on the current state of the program but many graduated to become interaction designers. http://www.lcc.gatech.edu/graduate/dmms/

Regarding cost I believe you only pay out of state tuition rates for your first year. I think you'd have a hard time finding a school with such strong academics at a better cost than GT. My two cents while not knowing much about the other programs. 

19 Dec 2011 - 1:32pm

I've recently graduated a Web design Tucson school and I am interested in subscribing to a HCI program. Is there anyone who can tell me which are the costs for such a program?

31 Dec 2011 - 12:45pm

Take another look at the Georgia Tech MS in HCI program, there are new web pages (mshci.gatech.edu) with a lot of detailed information about courses, faculty, labs, centers and the large and thriving HCI/UX scene at Tech and in Atlanta. BTW the degree is joint between the School of Interactive Computing (in the College of Computing, which also has a School of Computer Science), the School of Psychology and the School of Literature, Communication and Culture's Digital Media program.  The school of Industrial Design will soon be joining the program; even now, students can take ID courses. Some students also earn the Management of Technology Certificate.

Jim Foley, GT MS-HCI program director

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